Are you tired of all the campaign noise? Are you worried America is splitting into two? Are you saying prayers? Or are you proudly casting your ballot – for a woman who, not 100 years ago, couldn’t have done so herself ? On this US Election Day, the etymology of suffrage, that right to vote so sacrosanct in democracy, wraps all of these feelings into one.
Thoughts and prayers…and votes
The earliest meaning of suffrage in English was “prayers.” These prayers, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests them in the 14th century, were intercessory, or said on behalf on another, especially for the souls of the dead. An earlier variant, suffragies, also referred to such prayers in Middle English.
It’s over the course of the 16th century that suffrage moves towards various senses related to voting. The OED records suffrage as “a vote” cast in favor of some official proposition or candidate by 1535. By 1665, suffrage referred to general “voting” as such.
But it’s the United States Constitution, which entered into force 1789, where we first find the use of suffrage in its modern sense: “the right to vote.” Article V stipulates that “no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.”
By 1822 we have a universal suffragist, who worked to extend franchise. In the middle of the 19th century, suffragists especially referred to those fighting for the right of black men to vote. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the focus of suffragist was on women’s suffrage.
Women’s suffrage as such is first recorded in the name of a Rhode Island organization, the Young Women’s Suffrage Association, listed in James Webster’s 1842 People’s Democratic Guide. As the guide explained its mission:
The Young Women’s Suffrage Association, like the Ladies Free Suffrage Association of Rhode Island, whose entry is immediately preceding in the guide, issued a powerful call:
Suffragette, a women fighting for her right to vote, appears by 1906. Early on, though, this title was actually associated with violence and militancy.
The sound and the fury?
So, how did suffrage evolve from “prayers” to “the right vote”? It seems that word had two influences: the French suffrage and its origin, the Latin suffrāgium. The Latin root variously denoted a “voting tablet,” “ballot,” “voice,” “vote,” and, yes, “the right to vote.” The “voting” sense of the English suffrage may have been directly borrowed from this source in the 16th century while the earlier notion of “prayers” was taken from an intermediary French form meaning “support.”
It doesn’t stretch the imagination, then, to connect “prayers” and “voting” via the notion of “lending one’s support.” The word vote itself, after all, derives from the Latin vōtum, a “vow” or “wish,” eventually expressed with respect to some decision or person.
And as for the meaning of Latin’s suffrāgium? There are two theories. The first supposes the word joins sub (“under”) and fragor (“crash,” “din”). The idea, apparently, is a vote made under shouts of approval, perhaps not unlike the modern voice vote of aye’s and nay’s. The second thinks suffrāgium could blend that same sub and frangere, “to break,” like a little shard of tile once used to cast ballots.
There is some precedent for this broken tile explanation. The word ostracism indeed derives from the Greek ostrakon, a “tile” or “potsherd” used in votes to banish a person in ancient Athens. And similarly, the Greek kleros, source of clerk, referred to a “twig” used by ancient Greeks to cast lots.
As it happens, Latin’s fragor, “noise,” is related to frangere, “to break,” and gives English other words like fraction, fragment, and fracture. We’ve heard so much noise this 2016 presidential election, and we’ve experienced a lot of breakage. But there’s at least one thing that cuts through, one thing that keeps us together, and that’s exercising our suffrage.